58 pages 1 hour read

Chester Himes

If He Hollers Let Him Go

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1945

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Summary and Study Guide


Chester Himes’s 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go portrays the harsh truths of black life in white society during the 1940s. The plot follows four days in the life of Robert “Bob” Jones, a young black man working as a leaderman in a shipyard in Los Angeles during World War II. Bob narrates the novel in the first person—which means the story is told from Bob’s perspective—and the highly compressed, fast pace of the plot mimics the tough-guy style of 1930s and 1940s detective novels. The plot begins by showing Bob’s experiences with racial antagonism in everyday, mundane situations, which is echoed in the book’s use of slang and profanity. But the plot becomes even more tense and fraught as it portrays Bob in one catastrophe after another: because a white woman falsely accuses him of rape, Bob loses his job, his girlfriend, his army deferment, and, ultimately, his hope of ever achieving the American Dream. 

The plot of If He Hollers Let Him Go begins with Bob waking up to go to work at the shipyard. He is anxious and afraid, dreading encountering the many challenges of living and working in a world that thrives on racial discrimination. Despite Bob’s apprehension about discrimination, he is hopeful: he has been promoted to the position of leaderman at the shipyard, and he is the first black man to have been given this distinction. He feels that this honor must be indicative of his potential for future success and prosperity. 

But things take a turn for the worse the moment Bob arrives at work. His white superiors give him a hard time at every turn, denying him information and resources that he needs in order to have a successful first day as leaderman. When he needs help with a project, he is refused over and over until a white coworker tells him to ask Madge Perkins, a “peroxide blonde” (24) white woman from Texas. When Bob approaches her, she says, “I ain’t gonna work with no nigger!” (29). Angered and hurt, Bob calls her a “cracker bitch” (29). Bob goes to his boss’s office to report the incident and receives no help or support. Feeling as if nothing matters, Bob stumbles upon some workers gambling, throws some money in the ring, and wins. The white men are angry that he has won and refuse to give him his money. Bob lashes out at them, and a blonde white man knocks him out. When Bob comes to, he is obsessed with finding and killing Johnny Stoddart, the white man who knocked him out. For the remainder of the novel, Bob is motivated by the prospect of getting revenge on white folks by killing Johnny and raping Madge. 

This obsession with white people swiftly creates tension in Bob’s relationship with his well-to-do, educated, light-skinned girlfriend, Alice Harrison. Readers see this when Bob leaves work early and prepares to take Alice to dinner at a fancy hotel. When they arrive at the hotel for dinner, Alice is not pleased or impressed: she is embarrassed to be seen in white society with a man whose skin is much darker than hers, and whose behavior is hostile and belligerent. As Alice expects, the staff at the hotel discreetly ask them never to return as patrons. Bob and Alice fight; Bob accuses Alice of pretending to be white, and Alice accuses Bob of being an ignorant fool. As if to get back at Bob, Alice takes him to her friend’s house after dinner. They get very drunk and, to Bob’s horror, Alice appears to have a lesbian sexual encounter with her friend. 

The next day, Bob wakes up with a hangover, feeling lower than ever. He skips work and drives to Little Tokyo, wanting to be far away from people like Alice, but he becomes overwhelmed by the constant presence of white faces around him. He needs to talk to someone about his fear and anxiety and drives to Alice’s house, but things are not much better there. Alice has friends over who put on airs and pressure Bob to talk intellectually about racial issues, integration, and literature. After a while, a white man named Tom Leighton shows up and tries to tell Bob how he should think and feel about racial discrimination and inequality. Bob lashes out at Tom, and when Alice’s friends leave, she fights with Bob about how his outburst humiliated her. She insults Bob over and over again, telling him he is not good enough for her and that he must learn to accept the limitations of his race and respect the white people he works with if he expects to be with her. After the fight, Bob goes home and goes to bed to shake off the rest of his hangover. 

The next day, Bob goes back to work with the intention of talking to Madge Perkins about their altercation. An electrician gives Bob her home address, suggesting that maybe Bob can take some of the “stinking prejudice out of her”(111), implying that he expects Bob will have sex with Madge. Bob finds Madge at lunch, and Madge acts as if they have made up, flirting with Bob and being seductive. Still intent on the possibility of raping her to get revenge, Bob goes to Madge’s home that night. They have a violent encounter in her room; Bob is drunk, and he wrestles Madge to the ground multiple times. When Madge begins acting like she wants to have sex with Bob, he is repulsed, realizing that there is nothing attractive about her to him at all. The last time that Bob pins Madge down, she eagerly tells him to go ahead and rape her. In that moment, Bob finally realizes that Madge is the one with all the power. Terrified, he flees from her room. 

Bob meets Alice for lunch the next day. They have a pleasant time, and Bob finally explains all of his frustrations and fears about white people. He proposes, and Alice accepts. Feeling elated, Bob decides to do things Alice’s way to make her happy—he is going to go back to work, apologize to Madge, and get his old job back so that they can begin their happy life together. 

Things do not go according to plan when Bob gets back to work. When Bob finds Madge in an empty cabin on a ship, he tries to apologize, but Madge comes onto him and to get him to have sex with her. When Bob says he is not interested, Madge begins screaming that a black man is raping her. A mob of white workers gathers outside the door, demanding that Bob open up. Madge excitedly tells Bob she is going to get him “lynched right here in California” (137). When Bob opens the door, the white workers beat him to a pulp. He later wakes up in a hospital, and the guards tell him that Madge has sworn a warrant on rape charges and he could spend 30 years in prison. Terrified of this fate, Bob runs away in spite of his injuries. But his escape is short-lived. Bob soon gets pulled over by some white police officers who realize Bob is wanted for rape in the next county, and they take him to jail. 

Bob spends the night in jail, and the next morning, he meets with the president of the shipyard and a judge. The judge convinced Madge that it would be wise to drop the charges, likely suspecting that she lied. The court offers Bob a deal: he can join the military instead of facing jail time. Knowing that he has been beaten by the system, Bob knows he has no other choice and accepts the offer. By the end of the day, he is enlisted in the army, and the book comes to a close.